Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the  Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson won this year's Horn Book Award for Children's Fiction. I can understand why. It is a unique and original book in so many ways. Format. Content. Genre. It is also a fascinating story.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"
Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because "Negroes don’t read," Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.
In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.
"My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."

If you read the synopsis you may come away thinking this is a non-fiction biography. I did. I was thoroughly confused when it won the Horn Book Award for FICTION. Lewis Michaux was a real person, the great-uncle of the author as a matter of fact. His bookstore was a real bookstore. There is pictoral and documented evidence to support this story. However, the author found some contradictory accounts of his life and places where there were no accounts at all and she extrapolated., making it a work of fiction. The most well documented and sourced work of fiction in history. No lie. There's a bibliography, and not a short one either, not to mention the list of quote sources. It is so well done and clearly straddles a fine line between non-fiction and fiction. I very much admire the author for calling it fiction since there were places she had to make assumptions. At the same time I am glad to have discovered this slice of American History I knew absolutely nothing about. Even without the narrative extrapolations it is clear that Michaux lived a fascinating life and did an extraordinary thing.

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